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Louisiana rice magnate branching out into Osceola cattle operations

W. Elton Kennedy, who made a fortune growing rice in the Louisian delta, is now investing in Florida's cattle industry. He recently bought a $2.9 million share in Osceola's Camp Lonesome ranch.
W. Elton Kennedy, who made a fortune growing rice in the Louisian delta, is now investing in Florida's cattle industry. He recently bought a $2.9 million share in Osceola's Camp Lonesome ranch. (George Skene / Orlando Sentinel)

Louisiana rice magnate W. Elton Kennedy has bought a $2.9 million interest in an Osceola cattle ranch and is looking to invest in more Florida ranching operations.

Carlos Vergara, owner of the nearly 5,000-acre Camp Lonesome ranch south of St. Cloud, told GrowthSpotter he bought out his former business partners last July and agreed to sell a share of the business to Kennedy.

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"I'm very fortunate to have him as a business partner," Vergara said. "Elton Kennedy is all about preserving land. He's a big proponent of conservation and preservation of agricultural lands."

Vergara manages the cow-calf operation through his company, Four Ventures LLC. He said Kennedy Rice Dryers is now a minority shareholder. "It's purely an investment for them. He's just a great man, and he wants to leave a legacy behind of conservation."

Since Osceola County has promoted high density development within its urban growth boundary, developers no longer have a reason to buy development rights from ranchers and large landowners in the southern half of the county. So finding investors like Kennedy is one way ranchers can stay in business instead of selling their land for development.

Camp Lonesome was owned and operated by the Bronson family, prominent ranchers and political leaders in Osceola County for generations. Vergara bought it in 2004. He has sold a 300-acre conservation easement to the state through Florida's Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and he's negotitating to sell another 600-acre conservation easement to the program.

"My hope is that we really preserve all of the agricultural side of Osceola County because it's a treasure," he said.

That philosophy is shared by Kennedy, who has earned national recognition from U.S. Department of Agriculture for his conservation efforts.

Robert McGehee, land manager for Kennedy Rice, said the company has begun diversifying its portfolio. "Honestly, we're in the rice business, but land has gotten so expensive we've branched out and started investing in timber and cattle," he said.

Kennedy's Delta Land and Farm currently manages more than 157,000 acres of farmland, ranchland and timberland in seven states and is now expanding into Florida. "There's a lot of opportunities in Florida now," McGehee said.

The company is looking to invest in cattle ranches throughout central and south Florida. "We're not crazy, just running around throwing money away," McGehee said, "but we'll take a lower return on our investment if it is supportive of the environmental principles we hold."

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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